(MCT) — BALTIMORE — Bobby Spivey can walk through the halls of Sparrows Point High School without drawing much attention from anyone aside from his group of close friends. But put the 16-year-old in the small Southern hamlet of Stuttgart, Ark. — the self-proclaimed “Rice and Duck Capital of the World” — and Spivey is something of a celebrity.
Given his age and achievements to date, Spivey might become to duck calling what a teenage prodigy named Tiger Woods became to golf.
The teen from suburban Baltimore had been to Stuttgart for the International Duck Calling Championship before last year’s event in late November, finishing near the bottom the first time he tried in 2009 and coming in third in 2010. Spivey skipped 2011, but went from being a promising young talent to winning the intermediate title (for ages 13 through 16) in late November.
That’s a big deal in Stuttgart, where kids start to learn how to duck-call at around the same age kids in Baltimore first pick up lacrosse sticks or basketballs.
“They start at 3 or 4 years old and even have schools for them,” said Buddy Spivey, Bobby’s father.
Not that Bobby Spivey seems all that excited about being a big-time duck-caller in a small Southern town.
“It’s not being better than everyone else — it’s being lucky,” he said one night earlier this month at his family’s home.
While Spivey downplays his accomplishment — that’s not unusual, said his mother, Pam — he has been hounded since he was 11 by duck-call manufacturers looking to get the blond-haired kid from Baltimore to represent their product. Duck hunters around Maryland also started calling, asking Spivey if he wanted to guide one of their outings.
Spivey’s nonchalant personality disappears when he is competing, when he seems to attack his calls the way a classical pianist pounds out a concerto. Spivey said that it’s like playing a musical instrument — think of a clarinet that fits in the palm of your hand — with a rather jarring sound that varies based on the reed size, how the reed and cork are cut, and the skill of the caller.
Asked to differentiate between the honks and quacks that emanate from his duck call, Spivey shrugs.
“It’s complicated. It’s hard to explain if you don’t understand it,” Spivey said. “If they’re really far away, you’re really loud. When they get close, you sound like a real duck.”
If there’s anything that has changed, Spivey concedes that he feels a bit of pressure to perform his duck calls successfully when he is paid to guide a hunt.
“Yeah, I feel like I’ve got to kill ducks,” he said. “Just as if I would take them out fishing, I wouldn’t want to go out there and not catch a fish.”
Even before his championship in Arkansas, where he was one of the few non-Arkansans to take home a title, Spivey had a pretty impressive resume. It included a long list of victories — he claims four straight Maryland junior duck-calling titles among “18 or 19” total — that date to shortly after Spivey began calling around age 11 at the Eastern Sports winter outdoors show in Harrisburg, Pa.
“Him and a bunch of guys went up there to look at all the stuff and he just got into the contest,” Buddy Spivey recalled.
The younger Spivey, who has been hunting with his father and uncle, Michael Spivey, since he was 3 (there’s that Tiger analogy again) was hooked. His parents say he would practice day and night, learning by watching videos as well as clips of other duck callers on the Internet and mimicking what they did.
He hid away in the basement, even in the bathroom, trying to perfect the three basic duck calls — hailing, greeting and feeding — so that he and his buddies would have more success attracting ducks to where they were hunting off the mouth of the Patapsco. Given the kind of cacophony needed to imitate a flock of ducks flying overhead, Spivey’s parents celebrated the day he got his driver’s license.
“He now does the calls in his truck. It saves the household,” Buddy Spivey said.
Spivey said he also learned by watching some of his older friends, like Travis Shanahan, a 22-year-old from the Eastern Shore who has won his share of prestigious titles and is now trying to put together his own deer hunting reality television show with an Internet-only series called “Brotherhood Migrations.”
The two often practice and analyze their calls together.
“He’s taught me a lot of what I know, and he’s doing what I eventually want to do,” said Spivey, a junior in high school whose older sister, Ashley, plays soccer at Maryland.
Shanahan, a two-time international and three-time Maryland duck-calling champion, met Spivey when the two competed at that outdoors show in Harrisburg. Shanahan said when it comes to doing their own calls, that “if I hear something, in 10 or 15 minutes I can figure out how to do it and then I can do it and in 10 or 15 minutes he can figure out how do it, too.”
Shanahan said actual duck calling is “essentially painting a picture of why you’re out hunting” but in competition, where participants stand behind a partition not visible to the judges, they use what is called a “mainstream” style. It’s quite a bit different from what Spivey does when he goes out on the inlet near his house. That’s the “meat” style of calling.
“It is more about pushing the call to the limit, but you still have to paint a picture as if the ducks are way out and you’re trying to get their attention to bring them in,” said Shanahan, who now works for a Michigan-based duck-call manufacturer. “Everything we’re doing on a mouth call is simulating hen mallards.”
That Spivey has won world titles in both duck and goose calling is rare, according to Shanahan.
“There’s a select handful who can do it, but not many,” Shanahan said.
Though he has three straight Maryland State Junior Goose Calling Championships in nearby Easton to his name, Spivey is concentrating these days on duck calls. He has won four straight Maryland duck-calling titles, but the big one came last month in Arkansas. It doesn’t surprise Butch Richenback, the legendary Arkansas duck caller whose Rich-N-Tone (RNT) call is the most popular and successful on the market.
“He’s a good ‘lil duck caller,” said Richenback, a former mayor of Stuttgart who has been duck-calling for most of his 66 years.
That Spivey won his most recent title using one of Richenback’s calls helped them both, given that RNT has won more world titles than any other duck call, and Spivey is building his own reputation and perhaps his own brand one day. Spivey said he has a “relationship” with Richenback’s company, though he is not yet sponsored.
“A thousand people might buy his call to go hunting with,” Buddy Spivey said. “It’s ego, popularity contest. When you win world championships with that call, people want to buy that call to duck hunt.”
“If you win a world championship, especially at the next level, you’re building your resume,” Pam Spivey said recently about her son.
But even their modest son concedes that it does have a little to do with the person blowing the call.
“All calls are just about the same. It’s just about making one seem like it’s more,” Spivey said of the instrument he uses. “You still have to know how to call. They won’t do it themselves.”
One wall of the basement in the family home is filled with trophies and plaques — as well as several carved and painted wooden ducks given to Spivey for his victories. There are plenty more around the house in closets, and a few that haven’t even been taken out of the boxes in which they were shipped. Duck calls in all sizes and colors are strewn everywhere, even in planting pots.
Buddy Spivey, who prefers deer hunting to duck hunting, knows that his teenage son should have plenty of business for years to come.
“There’s a lot of duck hunters around here … but not a lot of callers,” he said.
Especially one with a world title to his credit.